Abuse victims fear having lost the right to testify
14th August 2012
Updated 14th August 2012
VICTIMS of clergy sexual abuse who signed confidentiality agreements with the Catholic Church as part of their settlements must apply to the church for permission to give evidence at the parliamentary inquiry into church abuse.
The Age knows of at least one victim who wants to tell his story but is terrified that "the church will take my house" - that is, sue him - if he does.
When The Age asked the church whether victims of abuse who had signed agreements could tell their stories, a spokesman first replied that the Melbourne archdiocese had never required victims to maintain confidentiality about their allegations, the abuse or the settlement amount, so there were no constraints on victims making submissions. But he defined victims only as those who directly experienced sexual abuse. However, several people have been compensated under the church's Melbourne Response as secondary victims, some of whom have signed agreements.
Pressed about these, the spokesman said any such victim "is welcome to contact the archdiocese to seek a variation of the agreement they reached".
But according to a government spokesman yesterday, the church's attitude is irrelevant because evidence to a parliamentary inquiry is protected by parliamentary privilege, which prevails over confidentiality agreements.
Melbourne University law professor Cheryl Saunders endorsed that view, saying Parliament had ''absolute privilege. This stems from a very ancient rule that says proceedings in Parliament cannot be questioned in any court of law.''
Victims and advocates welcomed the government statement, but said questions remained.
Advocate Helen Last said: ''What victims want is a written guarantee from the archbishop (Denis Hart) that they will not face any repercussions. They want their experiences known, but not under fear of being pursued by the law firm for the archbishop.''
She said the issue came up yesterday at a forum for victims in Ballarat. ''What about when the inquiry posts submissions on its website? Victims want to do that, but they don't know if they will be safe.''
Leading QC Bryan Keon-Cohen said although submissions were covered by privilege, many victims might still be reluctant to come forward.
The government yesterday announced the senior legal adviser to the inquiry would be retired Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent, a judge of the Court of Appeals for nine years, who has conducted two formal inquiries and was a consultant to the Australian Law Reform Commission.
Victims who have been critical of the inquiry's scope, the short investigation time and the resources allocated to it will have some fears allayed by such a senior appointment.
Former South Australian police commissioner Mal Hyde will be senior adviser on investigation and policing-related matters. Mr Hyde has 45 years' experience as a police officer, including as a deputy commissioner of Victoria Police.
Mr Vincent will be supported by a prosecutor and solicitor, who are yet to be appointed. The Family and Community Development Committee will report to Parliament by April 30. Submissions close on August 31.